As we sat there listening to the volume and sensibility of Elliott's one-way conversation ebb and flow like the screams on a roller coaster, Ian alternated between bewildered looks down the hall and silent pleas of mercy across the table at me. Please make it stop. I told him, "don't worry, I took Elliott to the doctor for this and he should be getting better soon."
"What's wrong with him?" Ian asked.
"The doctor says its an acute case of never-shuts-up-itis," I said. "He gave me some medicine he said would help Elliott, but that we should expect symptoms to continue for a long time, and that Elliott would continue to experience frequent episodes of the disease."
After a pause, "Daddy, what's an episode."
"What you're hearing now, Ian - that is an episode."
And so now, when Elliott gets to chatting away with no real purpose in sight, Ian gives me a quiet and sly look. I shake my head at him in agreement. Then we both go on our way, understanding - if not totally celebrating - that we've just shared some time together in another one of Elliott's episodes.
Of course all of this is in good fun. It's healthier for me to find enjoyment in the non-stop chatter of our boys than it is to fall into the trauma of wondering when I'll next experience a still moment. In this fun, though, it's important that I'm ever mindful that a lot of our boys' desire to talk is rooted in a child's general need to be heard.
In my last post - (Listening Is The First Step To Understanding) - I talked about the adult world constantly competing to be heard and understood. The problem is the number of people battling to be heard grossly outweighs the number of people jumping in line to listen. This leaves many of us feeling like we have to talk louder, more often, and more abrasive just to be heard.
Then consider children. They are clearly overmatched in the quest to be heard. Their inventory of talking points is limited to playground kickball games, who burps loudest in kindergarten, and the latest piece of wisdom from Johnny Test. Children quickly realize they have little to offer on who the next president should be and have little interest in knowing how much their Xbox contributes to climate change. So instead of overwhelming adults with their conversation quality - they bombard them with conversation quantity.
I don't know how many times one of our boys has been walking toward me, mouths already moving but the words not quite there yet, and I just know I'm about to hear another tale about the perfect lunchroom burp or a quote from Mr. Test himself. And I think to myself, I really don't want to hear another Johnny Test quote. The previous 3000 have failed to inspire me. How could this possibly be the one that's going to change my life?
Lately I've been trying to catch myself on that, though. I do confess - some days I have to try really hard. When I'm successful, and some days I am, I take my eyes away from my computer or book or television and point them right at their eyes. And as they begin to tell their tale I tune into them like there's nothing else in the world I'd rather hear. Oh, be sure, some days the result of this approach is I receive very little conversation quality while getting inundated with conversation quantity. But my strategy isn't about me being inspired or feeling a part of a life-changing conversation. It's about me letting my boys know they are heard.
I know that's one of the most important habits I need to work on and perfect as a father. Because I know this. Today they are coming to talk to me about their favorite television show or something funny their friends said or did at school. Tomorrow, though….Tomorrow they are coming to talk about sex or drugs or getting bullied at school or some other life struggle they just need someone to talk to about. And it would be foolish for me to believe if I haven't taken the time to listen to them today - if I haven't demonstrated a desire to hear Johnny Test's quotes while I've tried to wow them with brilliant quotes of my own - why would they think I'd be interested in the hard stuff?
So dads I encourage you to do this. As often as you can, when your kids approach you to talk, whether your interested in the conversation or not, make a point to stare them in the eyes, nod your head and smile or laugh at just the right time. So that when your child is done talking and walks away, they feel like they've just spent time with someone who values what they have to say.
And if you're like me, say a little prayer of thanks it was a Johnny Test quote and not a question about sex.